Terror Laid Bare

Flying is awful – and it looks like it’s only going to get worse. The actual “flying” part can be all right if you get one of those exotic personal entertainment systems with a trillion movies and every kind of Tetris rip-off imaginable.

Modern airlines come in two types: those that pride themselves on their hospitality, and those that pride themselves on abusing the goodwill of passengers to keep costs down. Either way, commercial airlines aim to please in some fashion.

But not even George Clooney in Up in the Air was able to make traversing the government’s airport security checkpoints look elegant.

Sociologists of the future will describe this as the “ritual” of travel: lists of what you can and cannot take into the plane; convenient check-in machines complemented by impossibly long baggage lines; the security barriers; making sure you remove your laptop; taking off your belt; and being swabbed for bomb residue.

Hop on a plane to the US and it’s worse. Since the underpants bomber failed to blow up his underpants on Christmas Day last year, airport security frisks passengers so intimately they can not only detect bombs in jocks, but can detonate them by hand.

Kevin Rudd has announced an extra $200 million for airport security. “It may,” said the Prime Minister in his best leadership voice, “mean it takes longer for passengers to pass through security, but the government believes that this inconvenience is a small price to pay for increased security.” (Incidentally, the prime ministerial jet was renovated in 2007, at a cost of $100,000.)

We’ll be paying this “small price” because the Prime Minister has decided to install full body scanners in Australian airports, scanners that can see through clothing to get almost naked images of passengers.

No surprise that some people worry about the privacy implications. In Britain, there is even serious concern that body scanners breach child porn laws. It’s illegal to create indecent images of children, and that’s what happens when children go through body scanners designed to look under clothing.

Privacy issues aside, what’s the point? Body scanners will be just another ceremony added to the elaborate ritual of travel – prime examples of “security theatre”. We might feel safer, but we’re not actually safer.

After all, how much safer could we possibly be? The risk of terrorism is infinitesimally small.

In the United States, there is an average of just one terrorist incident every 16.5 million flights, according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

In Australia, there are half a million domestic flights per year. Every day more than 100,000 people fly from one Australian city to another; 50,000 more either leave or enter the country.

But when in 2003 a parliamentary committee asked a witness from the Department of Transport whether there had ever been a terrorist incident on an aircraft in Australia, nobody could think of one. (There had been an unsuccessful hijacking attempt of a flight between Melbourne and Launceston in May that year, but the hijacker was suffering from severe paranoid schizophrenia. Hardly a professional jihadist.)

So even if full body scanners in every airport in the country halved the risk of terrorism, half of bugger-all is still bugger-all.

Human beings are terrible at assessing risk. In the past 12 months, there have been more than 1500 deaths on Australian roads. By contrast, over the past decade, 469 airline passengers died from bombings, hijackings or pilot shootings in the entire world. More than half of those fatalities occurred on September 11. The noughties were the second-safest decade for air travel since the 1950s, and there are a lot more passenger flights now.

Perhaps it’s all that security that makes flying so safe. But security specialist Bruce Schneier argues that there are just two truly effective protections against terrorism on airlines. The first is reinforced cockpit doors – without access to the cockpit, it’s hard to turn a plane into a flying missile. Since 2001, pilots do not open that door.

The second is us. Right now, the strongest defence we have against airplane hijackings or bombings isn’t terrorist no-fly lists or body scanners. It’s the passengers who now know they shouldn’t passively comply with the demands of terrorists, and who know the guy doing chemistry in the bathroom should not be left in peace.

The Christmas underpants bomber was scary, but security worked exactly as it should have. He couldn’t get a “good” bomb on board, so he tried to detonate a bomb so awkward it required 20 minutes of preparation in the toilet. And he couldn’t get it to work. He was quickly subdued by passengers when his pants caught on fire.

The Australian attempted hijacking was also defeated by passengers.

Back in 2005, then immigration minister Amanda Vanstone was candid about the absurdity of airline security. With obvious enthusiasm, she posed this hypothetical to a private audience: “If I was able to get on a plane with an HB pencil – which you are able to – and stabbed the HB pencil into your eyeball and wiggled it around down to your brain area, do you think you’d be focusing?”

Most terrorist plots are discovered through quiet investigative work, and foiled long before they are anywhere near ready, although we still haven’t dealt with the “Amanda Vanstone driving an HB pencil into your eyeball” threat. So the risk of airline terrorism will never be zero. But let’s try not to panic.